Sunday, March 23, 2014

On Women in STEM and the "Other"

As a woman in STEM, I've come to appreciate reading the perspectives of other women in STEM, whether we work in related fields or not.  This morning I read Xykademiqz post about Honorary Dudeness.  I started to reply, but the reply got long and merged with the thoughts I'd been having about "growing up global."

Then I saw this post by Sociological Images, "To Whom is George Zimmerman a Hero? And Why" and it all came together.

I've come to realize that one of the things that makes me different from many of the Americans I have interacted with is my Brat heritage, growing up military.  Now, we were only ever stationed State-side, so I didn't get the full-up expatriate Third-Culture Kid experience.  Sometimes I call myself a Third Subculture Kid, because the Brat semi-suburban culture was very different from the rural culture my parents were raised in.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Xykademiqz blogs about the experience of teaching female students, and how there's often a sharp dichotomy between the female students she develops a mentoring relationship with and the female students who seem to decide "this professor sucks."


Now, in engineering, my experience with female Engineering professors is VERY limited.  While Dr. Leah Jamieson was teaching at Purdue when I was an undergrad in Electrical Engineering, I never took one of her classes.  I would have liked to take EPICS, which she established, but it just didn't fit into my Plan of Study.

So I only had one female professor for three classes as an undergrad.  I thought she was very challenging, very tough, but an excellent teacher.  Her classes were not in my major, only the first one counted for my degree, but I wanted familiarity with her field of study to help my own career.  Grade-wise I struggled, but I feel like I learned so much from her classes.

So... as a woman in STEM and a Geek Girl, I've often preferred to be just "one of the guys," similar to "Honorary Dudeness..." but many of their descriptions of "Dudes" strike me more like the fraternity boy, suave and secure, which I didn't identify with.  With the HDs often being sorority girls or from similar establishments.

In my experience, there are girls and women who do that "nose in the air" looking down on other women.  Sometimes it's for being "uncool," fat, or unfashionable as described in those comments.  Xykademiqz and her commentors connect it with a white, American attitude, which also fits with my experiences.  Sometimes I've connected it with people who hadn't traveled outside of the country, who hadn't met or needed to work with people who looked or believed very differently from themselves.

I've seen it in person, online, and in letters to the editor, with people making statements like "We're all Christian here," and I think back to my awareness of how the Base Chapel would adapt, removing the cross for Friday night Shabbat, leaving it plain for Protestant services, turning it around to a crucifix for Catholic Mass... the awareness that Muslims and Hindus have other practices and may have other religious requirements.

And that, I think, is where the Sociological Images article ties in, with the boundary rigidity and tribalism.  Homogeneity can be "tribal," and anyone who is not "Us" becomes one of "Them."  I lived a year in a small, fairly homogeneous town, where very few of the students expected to go to college or to get out of town at all.  When surrounded by people who look and believe very similarly, one doesn't have to take the same range of perspectives into consideration.

I would have thought that a college / university would broaden one's horizons.  I know I met a wide variety of people on campus.  But it doesn't come naturally to everyone.  It takes a willingness to try new things, meet new people, be willing to step outside of one's self-segregated tribe and try being the odd one out.  I was astonished to meet young, millennial coworkers who had managed to go to a major university and not learn from the international students on their campus.

My current engineering course is taught by a woman professor, and I am really enjoying her teaching.  Some of the discussion board conversations with my fellow students... I've recommended to them the same things I'm saying here.  See the campus.  Walk through the Black Cultural Center, contact the Jewish or Muslim worship centers for opportunities to make a respectful visit, attend a lecture, ask questions, learn something.  If there's a public invitation to a Divali event, Eid, or Asian New Year, fit some of those cultural events into your schedule, and get to know what they mean, how they fit into people's lives.

And, most of all, travel.  Go out, see the world, meet new people, broaden your horizons, and think.